Top 5: If You Believe in Forever

There’s a line in A Charlie Brown Christmas: Linus says, “Maybe Lucy’s right—of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Brown-iest.” The line occurred to me recently as I looked over the newspapers and the record charts from July 1974—of all the 70s summers, 1974 is the 70’s summer-iest. The newspaper headlines were all about Watergate, weapons treaties with the Russians, and rising unemployment. And the radio was all about escapist pop music, typified by the survey from WISM in Madison, Wisconsin, dated July 4, 1974. Here are five noteworthy records from that summer week:

1. “Rock the Boat”/Hues Corporation (up from 7). The further in time we get from 1974, the more I think this record is one of the half-dozen essential singles of the decade, not just because it’s one of the first (if not the first) disco records to hit Number One, but because it typifies its moment in history so well.

9. “Rock and Roll Heaven”/Righteous Brothers (down from 3). I liked this song a lot more in 1974 than I do now—I hear it as cheesy and cliched in a way I didn’t when I was 14—but its mighty singalong power will not be denied.

20. “Keep on Tryin'”/Clicker (up from 32). One of Wisconsin’s most beloved rock bands, whose history has been nicely celebrated by our pal Jeff at AM, Then FM. “Keep on Tryin'” was the hottest record on the WISM survey in this week, moving up 12.

21. “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”/Elton John (up from 25). This was my favorite song of the moment. I adored it from the first time I heard it, although I didn’t buy it right away. I had quit buying singles by this time, and wouldn’t get a copy of the Caribou album until the fall.

26. “Train of Thought”/Cher (holding at 26). Melodramatic as it is, “Train of Thought” is also a great record, telling its story in two minutes without wasting a second.

I wanted to write about this week for a couple of other reasons beyond the 70s summer-ness of it. There’s a two-part aircheck of WISM from June 9, 1974, at YouTube featuring night guy Charlie Simon, on which he plays several of the tunes on this survey. (Part 1 here, part 2 here.) Charlie is still fondly remembered up here, but this isn’t a particularly great show. (He had nothing to do with putting it on YouTube.) There are a lot of breaks where he sounds like he hasn’t thought out what he’s going to say before he opens the microphone. Notice how often he gives the time—did listeners really need to know the time every three minutes? I suspect it’s a crutch. All that said, however, it’ll give you the flavor of the small-market Top 40 radio that used to be heard everywhere.

Notice too that the call-in contests are restricted to people whose phone numbers end with a certain digit, which strikes me as a practice worth resurrecting.

Be sure to watch the videos while you listen for some vintage pictures of WISM, which was the flagship station of the company I now work for. Those amongst the readership who grew up around here will get off on some of the commercials, too—I am pretty sure the George Holmes Tire jingle is tattooed on our DNA.

Here’s my other reason for writing about this: to lay some vintage Clicker on you.

“Keep on Tryin'”/Clicker (out of print)

One Day in Your Life: January 19, 1974

January 19, 1974, was a Saturday. The morning papers headline the decision to send the controversy over the 18-1/2 minute gap in one of the Watergate tapes to a grand jury for investigation. Today, President Nixon gives a noontime radio address on the energy crisis, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger prepares for another round of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East. South Vietnam and China battle in the South China Sea over some disputed islands. Hewlett-Packard introduces its first programmable calculator, the HP-65, nicknamed the Superstar; list price $225. NASA takes a photograph of Comet Kohoutek, which was hyped as the Comet of the Century when it was discovered last year. Although still visible to the naked eye through the end of this month, it is not nearly the spectacle it was made out to be. Trailing 70-39 59 with 3:30 to go, Notre Dame scores the last 12 points to defeat UCLA 71-70, snapping UCLA’s record-setting 88-game winning streak.

Future comedian Frank Caliendo and future NFL player Walter Jones are born. Future hockey Hall-of-Famer Jacques Laperriere of the Montreal Canadiens suffers an injury that ends his career. The current edition of TV Guide features an article about celebrity homes, with a photo of actor Paul Lynde in his mirrored dining room. On TV tonight, new episodes of M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show air on CBS; shows on NBC include Emergency; on ABC, The Partridge Family and Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law. Later tonight, guests on this weekend’s edition of Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert are Rod Stewart and Faces, Livingston Taylor, and Osibisa. Bob Dylan plays two shows in Hollywood, Florida, Wishbone Ash plays Passaic, New Jersey, and Charles Mingus plays Carnegie Hall.

At WCFL in Chicago, “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band holds at Number One, and “Sister Mary Elephant” by Cheech and Chong climbs to Number Two. “One Tin Soldier” by Coven, which is Number One across town at WLS, sits at Number Three. New in the Top 10 are “Let Me Be There” by Olivia Newton-John, “You’re Sixteen” by Ringo Starr, and “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder. Tops on the album chart are Jim Croce’s You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, the Carpenters’ compilation The Singles, and Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Northwest of Chicago, in the farm country of southern Wisconsin, a radio-crazed eighth-grader listens every minute he can, and shares his obsession with his friends, most of whom are not nearly as obsessed as he is.

Perspective From the Present: The fall of 1973 and winter of 1974 are among the bleakest seasons of the 1970s for the Top 40. Lots of bland pop music and funkless R&B (“Living for the City” excepted, which is one of the deepest grooves ever to hit AM radio), although there are some gems to be found: “Rockin’ Roll Baby,” “Love’s Theme,” the Staple Singers’ “If You’re Ready,” and “Hello It’s Me” by Todd Rundgren, although the bubblegum geek in me also digs the DeFranco Family’s “Abracadabra.” The best record of the season is probably “Until You Come Back to Me” by Aretha Franklin, written and produced by Stevie Wonder, although it’s a song I probably didn’t hear much back then. I was still listening to WLS in the winter of 1974, and they charted it for just three weeks. But I would discover it years later, and it would eventually earn a spot on my Desert Island list. Here’s a 2005 performance with Aretha and Stevie together that does a nice job of capturing the vibe of the original.

Can’t Get Enough

All my life, there’s a sound I’ve associated with early fall. It’s the trilling of the tree frog. I have never actually seen a tree frog—in fact, I don’t even know if the sound is really made by tree frogs, or if it comes from something else. But my mother always called them tree frogs, and that’s good enough for me. When we’d start to hear them, she’d say, “Six weeks till frost.” That wasn’t always true, of course, but it was usually close. The tree frogs would come out in mid-to-late July, and our typical first frost up here in southern Wisconsin comes during the last week of September.

Maybe it’s a consequence of the weird summer weather we’ve had, or global warming, or something else, but I haven’t heard any tree frogs yet this year. As a result, September has sneaked up on me. Last June, after summer had sneaked up on me, we took a look at summers past, one song at a time. So let’s try it again with fall, grabbing the Number 40 song from the Hot 100 on Labor Days past to see what they can tell us about the season to come.

1970: “All Right Now”/Free (eventual peak: #4, October 17). The fall of 1970 is where time begins for me, and this was the hardest-rockin’ thing on the radio when I first started listening. One of the memories it brings back is an an odd one. We’re on our way back from Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents’, I have cajoled my dad into turning on WLS while we drive home, and this is one of the first songs we hear. It’s not his cup of tea, but it’s definitely mine.

1974: “Can’t Get Enough”/Bad Company (eventual peak: #5, November 2). Sometime in the fall of 1974, I would discover FM radio, and switch my allegiance from WLS and WCFL to Madison’s Z104 and WACI from Freeport, Illinois. (I think I probably heard “Can’t Get Enough” for the first time on Z.) As a result, I would spend a lot of time that fall listening to my music on the big console stereo downstairs—better speakers—and would eventually retire the portable radio and record player I had in favor of my own stereo system.

1976: “Don’t Fear the Reaper”/Blue Oyster Cult (eventual peak: #12, November 6). That big console stereo was located in a little room on the front of our house that we called the sunporch. By 1976, it was equipped with a couple of comfortable chairs and upholstered with an unforgettable orange-and-yellow shag carpet. Although the console stereo and the shag carpeting are long gone, the sunporch is still one of the most pleasant rooms in the house I grew up in, although nobody spends much time there anymore.

1979: “Young Blood”/Rickie Lee Jones (peak position). My college radio station was under new management this fall. The program director and music director who had run the place during the first semester of the year had left school; the new guys installed an album-rock format lifted from a successful album-rocker in Milwaukee, where one of them had worked. I was paying close attention, and the semester wouldn’t be very far along before I decided I was going to run for program director in January.

1981: “The Night Owls”/Little River Band (eventual peak: #6, November 7). My term as program director was up in January 1981, and I didn’t go gracefully—I spent the next semester constantly criticizing everything the new regime did. During the summer, as one of the few students spending the whole summer at school, I anointed myself the de facto station PD—and found myself officially reappointed to the position that fall when the guy who had been elected in January quit. At the time, it seemed to me like a restoration of the natural order. In actuality, given the way I’d left, it was the most unlikely resurrection since the Resurrection.

(Speaking of resurrections, Echoes in the Wind will return to the Internets tomorrow. You can bookmark it here. A couple of our fellow bloggers have tried to pick up the slack during whiteray’s brief absence: AM, Then FM, and Any Major Dude With Half a Heart.)

Although I have played “All Right Now” 10,000 times on my own radio shows, it only sounds right to me in its remixed-and-shortened 45 version—which I don’t think I’ve ever played on the radio.

“All Right Now” (single version)/Free (buy it here)

On and On

May just slipped away this year, Memorial Day came in early, and we haven’t had very much warm weather up here yet. It’s downright odd seeing June on the calendar, but the evidence that summer has arrived is just outside my window. Today I thought we’d take a trip through some past summers one song at a time. Number-One songs would be a logical way to do it, but that’s been done to death. Let’s grab the Number 40 song from the Hot 100 on the first of June in some selected years and see what they can tell us about the summer.

1972: “Rocket Man”/Elton John (eventual peak: #6, July 15). I remember the day I brought this single home from the record store. My brother and I are waiting in a parked car (still the ’65 Comet, I believe) for Mom to come out of whatever store she’s in. Rain is falling lightly on the window. I’m in the front seat and I’m holding the record, which has a (mostly) yellow Uni Records label and a flimsy red-and-yellow paper sleeve. It’s the first Elton John record I’ll ever buy, but not the last.

1974: “On and On”/Gladys Knight and the Pips (eventual peak: #5, July 13). The fire that damaged the upstairs of our house was only a couple of weeks in the past; my new hangout was the semi-finished family room in the basement, where I listened to Chicago’s WCFL, which was about to pull even with WLS in their great Top 40 war. You couldn’t get ‘CFL in Wisconsin after dark,  however, so I switched over to WACI, an FM station from nearby Freeport, Illinois. In those days, small-town rock stations could be every bit as good as the major-market flamethrowers, and for a brief time in the 70s, WACI frequently rose to that level.

1976: “Still Crazy After All These Years”/Paul Simon (peak position). A summer I’ll conjure with until the end of time begins with an ill-fated effort to get hired by my hometown radio station. It’s the last year I’ll play organized softball, and I’ve never forgotten the way it felt to be out on the field, swatting gnats and mosquitoes in the sticky air, the lights taking hold as the sun goes down. My enthusiasm far outweighs my skill, but it doesn’t matter. The failure of “Still Crazy After All These Years” to rise any higher than Number 40 doesn’t matter, either. It will be around until the end of time, too.

1978: “Stay”/Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan (eventual peak: #38, June 10). I graduated from high school on May 30, and this song was just another way in which the radio talked to me all that spring. “Stay” wasn’t around long enough to leave much of an impression, however.

1979: “Dance the Night Away”/Van Halen (eventual peak: #15, July 14). I was working weekends at KDTH in Dubuque by this time, but still living at home. Since it was too far to commute to work, I spent the weekends with a couple of older college friends who had an apartment in town. I followed them around like a puppy, trying to absorb all they knew about radio and the real life of radio guys. It was my first extended exposure to city life, too—not an especially large or cosmopolitan one, I know, but I liked it nevertheless.

1981: “Nobody Wins”/Elton John (eventual peak: #21, June 20). This was the first summer I spent entirely away from home, in an apartment known as Broadcast Manor, although it was a mere two-bedroom townhouse. The charcoal grill was always hot and the beer was always cold, although I also saved some time to wonder what had become of Elton John since the summer of “Rocket Man.” We played tracks from The Fox on our college radio station, but I was completely unimpressed. Even the disco album Victim of Love had the fascination of a bad highway accident; The Fox was just dull. Here’s the video for “Nobody Wins,” in which a sweaty Elton rocks a Garth Brooks getup as the cast of a German impressionist film looks on.

By 1982, I had my first full-time radio job, and the summers that followed would rarely be remembered in their totality the way summers used to be. And life has never been quite the same since.

Top 5: Hamsters in the Smoke

I have had 1974 on the brain lately. That was the spring I put blacklight bulbs in the overhead fixture in my room, and the spring I tried getting into Emerson, Lake and Palmer because a girl I liked was into Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and it was easier than actually talking to her. It was also the spring we came home from church one Sunday to find our house full of smoke. We didn’t see any fire, but we couldn’t tell where the smoke was coming from, either. As it turned out, the culprit was the radio in my brother’s bedroom— the green Westinghouse tube-type, my first radio, the one I listened to on Christmas Eve 1970—which had shorted out and burned. It’s hard to imagine that it could have produced the volume of smoke we saw, but it did, and the smoke and soot damage, particularly to the upstairs, was significant.

The afternoon of the fire, my brother was inconsolable, sure that his hamsters, which lived in his room, were dead. At mid-afternoon my father finally went up to retrieve the cage. The little creatures were covered with black soot—but they were still alive. It fell to my grandmother, for reasons I can’t recall, to clean them up. I can see her even now, standing at the kitchen sink, washcloth in one hand and hamster in the other, with a look on her face that said, “You know, at my house we set traps for things like this.”

Around nightfall, I innocently asked my mother, “So, do you think things are getting back to normal around here?” She went off. “Normal?! It’s going to be months before things are back to normal around here!” She was right. We would be weeks washing clothes and drapes and walls and having furniture and carpets replaced. We had to discard lots of stuff that was too smoke-damaged to save—including my entire collection of original WLS music surveys from late 1970 through early ’74, a loss I have mourned ever since. It was indeed months before my brother and I could move back into our rooms upstairs. I would spend the summer of 1974 hanging out in the basement of our house.

That was also the spring I began listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 with pencil and paper in hand. Casey used the Billboard chart, but here are five tunes from Cash Box, dated May 18, 1974:

6. “Midnight at the Oasis”/Maria Muldaur (up from 9). I am pretty sure I took this at face value—a desert narrative, like an old movie that might come on after the 10:00 news—thereby missing the sexual subtext, which is the only thing I can hear now. (Live performance from Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert here.)

17. “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”/MFSB (down from 7). Soul Train was must-see TV for me, mainly for the theme song, although I had a healthy appreciation for R&B by that time. And when the theme turned up on the radio, I couldn’t get to the record store fast enough.

21. “My Girl Bill”/Jim Stafford (up from 25). In which we learn that punctuation matters. (Live performance and interview clip with David Letterman here.)

36. “Save the Last Dance for Me”/De Franco Family (up from 47). In the early 70s, you had your Osmonds, your Jackson Five, your Partridge Family, and a vast array of teen magazines to promote them. Surely there was enough teenage-girl interest to sustain the career of another family singing group. In the case of the DeFranco Family, there was three singles’ worth. “Heartbeat, It’s a Lovebeat” would be better if Tony DeFranco were a better singer, but “Abra-ca-Dabra” is a glorious gob of bubblegum that overcomes his limitations. Their respectful and respectable cover of “Save the Last Dance for Me” marked the end of the line.

37. “Star Baby”/Guess Who (up from 38). In which the Guess Who channels the spirit of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Crank it up, open the windows, step on the gas . . . and enjoy the holiday weekend. I’ll be on the radio a lot, so tune over. And because I didn’t post much this week, watch for an extra post or two here as well.

“Save the Last Dance for Me”/DeFranco Family (96 kbps, but you’ll get the idea; out of print)
“Star Baby”/Guess Who (buy it here)